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Without bold and urgent action, Covid-19 will widen health inequalities

Without bold and urgent action, Covid-19 will widen health inequalities

The virus spreads more quickly in more deprived, overcrowded areas, says Jon Ashworth MP | Credit: PA Images

4 min read

Covid-19 is a ticking time bomb. While this virus is a deadly risk for everyone, we can’t ignore its disproportionate impact in poorer and BAME communities.

Covid-19 thrives on inequality. And inequality in health is the worst inequality of all, leading to people dying sooner because of poverty. While this virus is a deadly risk for everyone, we can’t ignore its disproportionate impact in poorer and BAME communities.

Figures published this week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that Black people are more than four times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white people. Bangladeshi and Pakistani males were 1.8 times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white males, females from those ethnic groups were 1.6 times more likely to die from the virus than their white counterparts.

Data from last week showed that more deprived areas experience Covid-19 mortality rates more than double those in less deprived areas.

These figures combined are exposing a dramatic divergence in the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in England and Wales. Labour has long warned of shameful health inequalities which mean the poorest contract illness earlier in life and die sooner. And we cannot ignore how important racial discrimination and racial inequalities are, even among poorer socio-economic groups.

This week I called for a Covid-19 health inequalities strategy to be implemented urgently to protect deprived and BAME communities and tackle the hidden health effects of the covid-19 pandemic.

Ministers must act now. I’ve proposed a five point Covid-19 health inequalities plan.

Firstly in addition to regular testing of healthcare workers and care home residents, community testing and contact tracing should be initially be targeted in areas with higher mortality risk particularly the most deprived areas and in areas with a higher proportion of BAME residents as a priority.

Secondly the location of testing and tracing centres should be closer to at risk communities to tackle inequalities in ability to travel to testing centres.

But if people are asked to isolate we need to provide support for isolation for those who otherwise would not be able to.. The virus spreads more quickly in more deprived, overcrowded areas. Hotel space should be used free of charge to help people isolate.

Earlier this week the BMA warned that many people are also not receiving the treatment they need for non Covid-19 care. And a wealth of charities have been highlighting the impact of Covid-19 on other conditions too. Cancer pathways have been hit, with urgent two week wait referrals dropping by 75 per cent. Around 200,000 people per week are no longer being screened for bowel, breast and cervical cancer, meaning a significant number of early cancers could be going undetected. the number of people seen in Accident and Emergency with a suspected heart attack dropped by 50 per cent between mid-March and the end of March - a reduction of around 1000 people per week.

A team of 24 experts published a paper in the Lancet stating that Coronavirus will have a profound social, psychological and biological impact on the public long after lockdown ends.

There is therefore a growing burden that risks widening health inequalities generating ‘hidden’ morbidity and mortality associated with non Covid-19 conditions. Not least because we know cancer, heart attack, stroke, respiratory conditions all have higher death rates at every age in more deprived areas. Poorer areas also suffer from higher rates of mental health problems and deaths from suicide.

As the NHS resumes ‘normal’ activity alongside continuing to treat Covid-19 patients, resources should be allocated to ensure inequalities in non-covid health outcomes do not worsen as a consequence of the pressures on an already stretched health service.

Finally, we know from Sir Michael Marmot’s ground breaking study, that life expectancy has stalled. We’re calling on ministers to set up a Covid-19 health inequalities commission to ensure the social and economic effects of lockdown do not worsen existing health inequalities with a view to reporting on trends in healthy living years and life expectancy as a result of Covid-19.

Without bold and urgent action, Covid-19 will widen health inequalities. It’s a ticking time bomb – ministers must act now.

 

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South and shadow secretary of state for health and social care. 

 

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